By Tony De Bolfo

As football and its member clubs continue with their contingency plans for the corona virus pandemic, thoughts invariably turn to the astonishing effects of the Spanish flu, which in 1919 claimed the lives of as many as 100 million people worldwide – amongst them the newly-appointed Carlton Vice-President Frank Hyett, a champion of the working class and one of the most significant labour activists through the anti-conscription campaigns.

Hyett’s passing was recorded in the Carlton Football Club’s Annual Report as follows;

With very much regret we have to record the death of our senior vice-president, the late Mr. Hyett. The deceased gentleman just been elected to that position, also as a Delegate to the V.F. League, and he was beginning to give the Club the benefit of his vast organising and brilliant talents when he fell a victim to influenza. His death was a great loss to your Club and game. On your behalf, sincerest expressions of sympathy were extended to Mrs. Hyett and family.

The Hyett-Carlton connection can be sourced to the man’s time in the creams, for Frank was an accomplished cricketer - as a wicketkeeper and opening batsman for both Brunswick and (later) Carlton and Victoria. A high point of Hyett’s six seasons at first class level was a century posted against Tasmania – 108 not out to be precise.

Hyett also served the Carlton Cricket Club as an accomplished Vice-President. But away from the sports grounds he was a committed trade unionist.

Francis William (Frank) Hyett was born on February 9, 1882 at Bolwarra, about 20 kilometres east of near Ballarat. The son of Tasmanian sawmiller William Hyett and his Bungaree beau Annie Kingston, Hyett’s father died of pneumonia barely a year after he was born.

In the 1983 edition of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, it is noted that Hyett’s early schooling “was punctuated by the family’s moves, first to Brunswick and then to other inner suburbs of Melbourne in search of cheaper housing”.

“He (Hyatt) left school at 13 and began work as a grocer’s boy, later becoming a clerk. His early interests were cricket and football and he played with Coburg Juniors and later Brunswick. He also read widely, at first technical subjects but increasingly economics and politics,” the Dictionary records.

“By 1902 he had become attracted to socialism, which, under the tutelage of Frank Anstey, became for him a way of life. Hyett acquired a facility for forceful oratory and persuasive pamphleteering from Anstey, who also instilled into him a hatred of Imperialism and militarism.

“John Curtin was a fellow protégé of Anstey, and a close friend of Hyett from 1903. The other early influence in Hyett’s political life was Tom Mann. Hyett followed him into the Social Democratic Party, of which he became secretary in 1905, and the Victorian Socialist Party of which by March 1906 he was deputy secretary.”

Hyett was an energetic participant in the party’s lecture program and Yarra Bank meetings and was prominent in its fight for the right to hold public meetings in Prahran – a move which cost him 14 days imprisonment.

In February of 1910, the year he married Ethel Gunn, Hyett aligned with the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees as a paid and in 1911 helped found the Victorian Railways Union, becoming its first general secretary. He also played a major role in the formation of the Australian Railways Union, eventually achieved in 1920.

Hyett tragically died of pneumonia on April 25, 1919, having contracted ‘Spanish’ influenza while with the Victorian cricketers in Sydney. His funeral, at Box Hill cemetery, was attended by 5000 people, “an indication of the affection and loyalty he had earned,” according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Hyett was considered the closest male friend of Curtin - later Australia’s wartime Prime Minister (and an uncle to the maternal grandfather of Carlton Assistant Coach John Barker). At the time of Hyett’s death, Curtin was participating in a union meeting when notified of the development by way of telegram. So distraught was Curtin that he later wrote that he would “not forget that day if I live to be 90”. It was reported that on the night of his pal’s demise, Curtin paced the verandah of his home in Cottesloe repeating in disbelief “Frank Hyett is dead”.

When Hyett’s funeral train passed Glenferrie Oval en route to Box Hill, footballers participating in a match at the ground stopped to pay their respects to the popular railways unionist, activist and sportsman.

Years later, in recognition of his commitment to the cause, the building housing the railways union was named Frank Hyett house.

The legendary Carlton Secretary/Coach Jack Worrall, in a tribute to Hyett in The Australasian, noted that whilst renowned as a cricketer, “the man was also a football enthusiast, and in the last wave that swept aside all football instruction in Carlton, Hyett was nominated and made a vice-president”.

Of Hyett’s funeral, Worrall reported the following:

“His funeral, which left the Unity Hall, was a quarter of a mile in-length, and at Box Hill more than 1,000 railway men, marching eight deep, formed into, line and followed the hearse to the cemetery, where a concourse of 5,000 people congregated. Among those present were representatives of the V.C.A., the Football League, Carlton Football and Cricket Clubs, Federal and State Parliaments, and Trades Hall. In accordance with his own wish, he was given a Socialist funeral, the coffin being draped with the red-flag, surmounted by a wreath of red flowers. The Rev. F. Sinclaire officiated at the graveside, funeral orations being also delivered by Mr; Scott-Bennett, of the Socialist party, and Mr. W. H. Hulse, a member of the council of the Victorian Railways Union.”

In 2019, on the centenary of Hyett’s untimely demise, members of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union gathered at Box Hill Cemetery to lay a wreath at Hyett’s memorial which the union had also arranged to restore.